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The Legacy of the Leo Frank Travesty

The trial was a shock to American Jews, as was Frank's lynching two years later.


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Leo Frank

Leo Frank



Last month – August 25, to be precise – marked the 100th anniversary of conviction of Leo Frank in Atlanta.

The Leo Frank case was not the impetus for the founding of the Anti-Defamation League. While the organization was founded the same year as the arrest and trial of Frank for the murder of one of his factory workers, a 13-year-old girl named Mary Phagan, the idea for ADL, conceived by Sigmund Livingston, a Chicago attorney, preceded the case.

Rather than being the catalyst for the organization, the trial served as a confirmation of the wisdom of Livingston that American Jews needed an institution to combat anti-Semitism.

America was a much different place in 1913. Compared to Europe, Jews here lived far more secure and stable lives, but stereotypes and name-calling were still common.

Still, the trial was a shock to American Jews, as was Frank’s lynching two years later. Looking back, we can see this great tragedy as representing the two sides of America and the Jews that still exist today, but in a very different balance and form.

The lynching of Leo Frank

The lynching of Leo Frank

The Frank affair demonstrated that America was not immune to the stereotypes and conspiracy theories about Jews that had characterized European life for centuries. The blood libel charge was rare in America but a related theme, of a Jewish predator attacking a young Christian female, surfaced in the Frank trial.

For American Jews, the Frank affair was seen as a low point in Jewish life in America. The truth is, however, that the most difficult years came later, particularly in the 1930s when anti-Semitic hate groups proliferated and when quotas in universities and other institutions abounded.

If there were doubts about the need for an ADL, that evaporated among significant parts of the community after Frank’s lynching.

Clearly, America has come a long way in the past 100 years. A Leo Frank incident is unthinkable today. Yet the Frank affair still resonates.

Anti-Semitism in the extreme, a completely biased trial and the lynching, may largely be things of the past. But the stereotypes that underlay that extremism are still alive. ADL surveys show that 15 percent of Americans still have anti-Semitic attitudes.

One hundred years later, we are saddened by the memory that it could have happened here, pleased America has come so far, and recommitted to addressing those still living biases, some of which allowed the travesty that was the Leo Frank affair.

Abraham H. Foxman

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